CotC: just a two-day wonder?

The skill of interrogation is something that has remained with them.
Class teacher, Mendham Primary School

There is an increasing amount of evidence to indicate that the Project brings a variety of benefits to school-students on the particular day or days during which the Project-team works in school. But is it possible to ascertain whether the Project has any lasting effects?

In an attempt to find out I visited Mendham Primary School in Suffolk eight weeks after pupils had worked on the Project. I interviewed young people, and also their class-teacher. I spoke first with fifteen pupils from Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 organised into three small-groups. We talked about what they remembered from the two days of the Project, whether they had learned anything new, whether they had discussed the Project-days with family and/or friends, and how the experience might have been improved.

Remembering

All the young people could remember the main elements of the two days, though they didn’t always recall these in the same order, or the order in which the events actually took place.

For the youngest pupils (Years 3/4) most memorable was making the creatures and costumes, acting out the play and bringing in something to school which reminded them of the countryside. They remembered the specifics of what they made: shakers, masks, wands, a cape, a cardboard thing like the prow of a boat… my favourite part. They also remembered making up a song or chant (and could remember some words to it), collecting twigs and handling the SCVA artefacts. This last activity had turned their classroom into a mini-museum!

The Year 4/5 group remembered dancing by the river, what the chant could be about and what some of the words used were. They remembered making their own instruments and scaring away the crocodile. It was really fun. They also recalled doing the mindmapping work, learning about the hanging hooks, and that the PNG artefacts were carved and painted. They spoke about the PNG paints and colours in some detail.

The oldest group (Year 5/6) remembered being shown the boat, and then making a raft or prow or an oar, and painting these in the style of the originals: red, brown and black, like earthy colours. They remembered going near the river, making up their dance with a chant and a beat to scare away crocodiles, thunder and lightening, and sea-serpents. They explained that the idea of going to the river had not been pre-planned but had emerged during the course of the Project day. They understood that river-related objects were important because PNG people rowed most places. They recalled the hanging-hooks. And lastly they remembered bringing in their own countryside-related objects.

 

Learning

The youngest group felt that they had learned new things: that there was a place called Papua New Guinea and it was inhabited, that some of the people there made necklaces and daggers and paint, and decorated their skin with tattoos or scars. The Year 4/5 group told me that they painted and used lots of colours that we use… They use animal blood [to make paint]… They do carving. The oldest group felt they had learned how in another culture things we regard as everyday or ordinary can be elevated in importance: it would be just like quite normal to us, but almost sacred to them. They also recalled the scarification-ritual, locating it as a rite-of-passage: The things they make them do to sort of become a man. From their physical encounter with the artefacts they had learned how to take care of such things, and that they were indeed to be taken care of.

Talking later

At least one person in each group had talked about the day in some detail afterwards, either to someone at home or to a peer or friend. For the youngest group the day had been interesting and unusual, and that had been the spur to later discussion of it at home. Some members of this group said they’d talked about it with friends, but couldn’t be specific about what was said.

A member of the Year 4/5 group had been very interested in making a prow which he had then turned into a crocodile. He was also interested in the spiritual things that they hanged up somewhere to stop evil spirits trying to hurt them, and had talked about these things at home. More generally, the group suggested that the Project-days remained as a reference-point: if we do something that kind of reminds us about that, we kind of talk about it a bit. Their class-teacher would elaborate on this.

In the oldest group was a pupil who said she’d spoken at home particularly about the art-work which had been produced during the Project-days and continued afterwards. Her mother had taken a keen interest in how her daughter’s piece progressed, coming in after school to see it. Another pupil had talked about the days over the phone with a friend who had left the school, because: it inspired us to do… something else, rather than just stick to what everyone else thinks. So like think outside the box a bit more. Members of this group indicated ways in which the Project-days had had a wider impact, too:

I think it’s sort of inspired me to go out and try new things [in my artwork] based on PNG and their sort of cultures, inspired me to do my own drawings and try and include that in some of my work…

I think that their art is like quite unique in being their… culture and their religion and things. It sort of makes you wonder more what their life is about.

 Improvements

A few suggestions were made about how future similar Project-days might be improved, which indicated a degree of reflection afterwards about the experience. The most common call was for there to be longer time (especially for costume-making: the pupils had in fact re-made their costumes from the Project-days because they felt that they had not had time enough to reach their own quality-threshold.) Some pupils wanted to see more staff available on the days so that more people could receive one-to-one help as required. One pupil said he’d become bored halfway through the work of making, and had wanted more choice of possibilities.

The class-teacher’s perspective

I spoke finally with the class-teacher, asking first whether she had seen any lasting effects on any of the young people following the two days of the Project. She was clear that she had:

[T]he skill of interrogation is something that has remained with them because they really did like finding stuff out for themselves without being told… Just this morning we went to [a local High School] … I arranged for them to go to the art room and they were approaching the objects in the art room in very much the same way as they approached the objects that we had here on the [Project day].

She was able to give a number of specific examples of the kinds of ‘interrogation skills’ learned during the Project-days and employed on this occasion:

What’s it made of? How have they coloured it? What did they make it for? You know, those sort of questions.

She also gave examples of how the Project-days had operated as one reference-point across the school-year:

It’s come up in discussion a few times… so quite often when we’re talking about art and things that we see, you know, the children will say: “Oh gosh, but that was a bit like the masks we looked at when David showed us the film,” or “That’s like one of the little figures that Sue had.” So they’re making references in different ways, because things resemble items that they’ve seen, or because they might have been useful for the same sort of thing.

The Project-days had led to the young people creating fabric-banners whose content reflected what they thought was important about the countryside they knew, and whose style or form was influenced by the PNG artefacts they had seen:

[T]hey started as cloaks and became banners… that reflected something about their life in the countryside, rather than of a culture that they couldn’t understand…They are just illustrative of what children think is important to them…[T]he older ones have stuck more closely to the Papua New Guinea theme and so we’ve got batik with fish on…I don’t think they’ve ever done anything quite like that with me before… [T]hose big banners… were very childlike and charming and I liked it because it just came from them.

(It may be seen from photographs of these banners how their layout and design relates to the patterning on some of the PNG artefacts.)

Some individual pupils had their aspirations raised or changed by aspects of the Project-days. One pupil, who had tended to downplay the praise her work received at school, reacted differently during the Project:

[David] said: “Isn’t that wonderful. She’s very talented.” And I said: “Oh please tell her, because she’s heard me say it so many times she just thinks that’s something I say to make her feel better.” And since he had a word with her and said what he thought… she’s begun to think very seriously about her future and if she went to art-school what she could do with a degree in Art. She started talking about art therapy and all sorts of thingsAnd there’s another… girl who I was talking to today and she was saying… that she’s started looking at a wider range of expression, so she’s looking at landscape painting and stuff. She’s discovered an interest in looking at things like that and in doing it.

Asked whether there had been any drawbacks to involvement with the Project the teacher mentioned lack of time to complete some of the creative work to the high standard pupils felt was normal:

[T]he second day we found we just didn’t have time to finish stuff… it was all too rushed… I could see they didn’t like it…

This in turn had led to a hiatus in the aftermath of the Project-days. Pupils felt that some of what they had created on the final day:

just wasn’t good enough. Then we did feel a bit lost, because, you know, where to take it?

However, the happy outcome was the production of the fabric-banners.

 

It was also suggested that a visit beforehand to the SCVA, and a chance to look at and perhaps handle objects in that space, would have benefitted some of the pupils:

It would have been nice to go and have a look at objects like that in situ, in a museum environment I think… to see the stuff there and to meet people… might have extended it a bit I think… That really would have been taking the children out of this very small village, small school environment.

One further issue the teacher identified was that some pupils had not fully understood why they were engaged in certain creative-activities:

[T]hat second afternoon with David and Sue, we were talking about items that might be used for ritual and worship and that sort of thing. So we made little drums and shakers, some headgear and a cloak… and then we made little chants and things and performed out own rituals and the children weren’t at all happy about that because I think, I think the reason was that they couldn’t really understand why they were doing it… [T]hey understood there was a meaning there but they didn’t really know what it was. Which I thought was very perceptive, that they could understand… there was something so different about another culture that they felt they were playing with it.

It is interesting to note that these elements of the day (making costumes, chanting) were among those the young people themselves identified as being memorable. Perhaps the meaning-content of these activities has been made more explicit in the class-discussion which the teacher had enabled after the Project-days.

 

 A real purpose and a real audience

I was able to look briefly at a variety of art-works produced out of the Project and valued first through being displayed in the classroom: batik; fabric-banners; clay animals and figures. One student had made a clay representation of a god based on a PNG object and had then gone on voluntarily to re-make the design in batik. These pieces were valued again through being exhibited at the Wingfield Barns exhibition in June/July 2010. In other words, they were to be seen by members of the public who were entirely unknown to the young people, and in a high-profile space dedicated to the presentation of artwork. The opportunity for pupils to make work for a ‘real’ audience (that is, for people unknown to them, as ‘real’ artists do) is understood to have a significant effect on motivation and engagement. At that exhibition a parent of one of the pupils told me how knowing his work would be on display in a public exhibition-space had made a particular impression on the child:

It made a big impact! He insisted on us coming [to the exhibition]. Exposure at this age to an art-exhibition is pretty important. It gets them thinking. It’s the first time art’s having an impact.


A number of pupils from this school attended the Opening Night of the exhibition with their families. In this way, too, the Project sustained (and perhaps renewed) its influence in the lives of at least some of the pupils.

Patrick Yarker

2 July 2010